By Tracy G. Cassels
There has been no celebrity quite as outspoken or involved in the Attachment Parenting world as Mayim Bialik. Not only can you count on seeing her image in any piece on celebrity breastfeeding, but she serves as the celebrity spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network, a US-based organization focusing on positive parenting, holistic health and nutrition, and green living. She also writes her own blog on Kveller and stars in The Big Bang Theory as Amy Farrah Fowler. And now to top it off, she’s written a (sadly) controversial book about parenting attachment-style which has (luckily) been a huge hit so far, Beyond The Sling. I was lucky enough to be able to have a chat with Mayim in the midst of all this hoopla and am pleased to say she’s as nice and well-spoken as you would imagine.
So, is this all what you expected?
Um… No! We’ve already went into a third printing.
That’s awesome! But I’d like to ask how you managed to do it. You’re homeschooling, you’ve got your blog, you’ve got a show, you’ve got young kids at home still, and now… a book.
Well, part of the secret is that my husband is home with our boys, but for the first couple years of both their lives, it was me at home. I started auditioning again when Fred was almost one. I write when our boys sleep, I don’t have much of a social life, and I don’t get many hours sleep. But everything gets done without nannies or assistants or any of that, I promise.
You’ve talked on your blog a bit about how Miles was a high-needs child and you had problems breastfeeding – problems many moms face. Yet in our society the response to that is to switch to formula, use cry-it-out. I agree with you that these are not the answers, but what advice would you give to parents who are faced with that kind of high-needs child?
When you have a high-needs child I think it’s even more important learn about the body, to learn about what it means to respond to those needs. Sometimes high-needs children are just better at telling us – loudly – what they need, so in a way it’s kind of a blessing. It was extremely frustrating having two children who really did not want to be put down for many, many months, but my husband and I spoke to enough people and I got enough support from La Leche League International and from other women who were parenting this way to have the strength to shift my expectations and know, “Oh! I’m not going to be able to get back to my social life, my schedule, my shopping, really anything right away.” And that’s kind of the universe’s way of giving us a present and teaching us to slow down.
My daughter was the same and I found my experience has changed me as a person, but I love the person I’ve become.
Sure, but it’s scary to a lot of people. I think especially in a productive and kind of feminist society it’s not valued to surrender that way to the needs of a child. When people ask me what the hardest part is of parenting this way, I think it’s exactly what you just touched on, it’s not walking away when a mirror is held up in front of you and you see how much you are ruled by the expectations of society instead of what your desires are and the needs of your family.
In line with that, what do you think will end up changing, globally, society’s expectations for mothers and their children and that relationship?
I think Ricki Lake has shown exactly what can happen. When two women who are not satisfied with something really put their money where their mouth is. Ricki Lake did support for this book, which has been tremendous, but I think she’s a perfect example of someone saying, “It’s not acceptable how we treat women’s bodies and how we treat childbirth”. I think that’s been an amazing start to what I hope is a wider understanding in this country [the USA] because many countries get it. I talk a lot about the Scandinavian countries in the book, about the dozens of countries that have made hitting illegal, about the countries with far better infant and maternal mortality rates than us. There are places in this world that get it and we should look to them and see how we can learn from them – even if our society is not as small, not as homogenized, not as wealthy – there are still things we can learn.
I love the Scandinavian countries. Their policies just seem so humane. You look at their education system and I know people argue it’s just the system that’s better, but I think it starts even earlier. The reason their kids do so much better is that they have this foundation to work with.
And when parents are told that it does matter that they raise their children, it absolutely shifts the climate of a culture. When you’re told that you don’t have to give up your salary simply because you want to be with your child, it absolutely changes the fabric of the society.
One of the things they have there – and you have a perfect example of it with your husband at home – is there’s a huge involvement of fathers. How important do you think that is in practicing attachment parenting? Obviously it’s not necessary – single mothers can do it and do it – but how helpful do you think it is to have fathers more involved like they are in those Scandinavian countries?
It’s difficult to answer because, especially in this country, there’s a huge emphasis a certain liberal philosophy about parenting. Even in the book we had to be very careful to not only talk about married couples and not to only talk about husbands. I think, speaking biologically, the male and the female primate do serve a very specific function for babies, but I think even more than that a community in general is very important to primates. Other women are exceedingly important and some would argue possibly more than having a husband or someone of the opposite sex there. So I think both of those things are extremely important in different ways.
I was asked a question about this by a stay-at-home dad, who is a really interesting guy and who interviewed me when I was in New York for the book tour. I said that I think attachment parenting made my husband more able to be present and really helped him to make a confident decision about being home. I don’t know if he would have been as confident about the decision to be home if he didn’t already have such an amazing connection with our boys because of baby wearing, because of co-sleeping, because of believing that their voice mattered as infants. It really forged a fantastic relationship between him and our kids that I think if we didn’t parent this way, he would not have the same way. I actually only realized this on the book tour. I realized that I don’t think he would have had the confidence if he hadn’t been an attachment parenting dad to begin with.
That’s incredible because I do think there are a lot of dads who may be supportive of mom doing it, but who may not jump on board themselves. There’s a disconnect in that attachment parenting is seen as a mom’s area and dad’s going to do the rough and tumble things down the line.
I find a lot of policy-makers are resistant to the type of information about policies around the world, like the family-centered policies in the Scandinavian countries. It seems to be very strong in the US, but the science is out there, the research is out there, so how do you get these people to listen? Is it money?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I think there are probably people more qualified than I to decide that. Not to sound like Marx, but I think we do have to start with the people. And I think that will in a large way determine where we go from here. I think we need to get more people knowing about these kinds of things and making them care.
I’ve been online a lot and there’s a debate happening in New Zealand over a public policy ad that had an image of a rugby player bottle-feeding his daughter in an anti-smoking campaign. When La Leche League was asked their opinion by the government, LLL stated that the image may do harm to a breastfeeding campaign that they’ve got going on at the same time. So the government removed the image and it’s caused a huge stink all around New Zealand and beyond. People are arguing that the removal disrespects father’s rights and it’s a beautiful way for a dad to bond with his baby and it shouldn’t matter.
Yep. And the places like the Natural Parent Magazine in New Zealand have been bombarded with accusations that they don’t care about dads, etc. What do you think of these types of situations?
First of all, LLL takes no particular stance on bottle-feeding or not, meaning, their latest edition of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding has an entire section about work. When The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was published by LLL in 1958, there was no chapter on work. So they’ve come a long way. LLL helps women who pump, helps women who go to work. But I think the normalization of bottle feeding in our culture is what they’re very sensitive to. I know dads who have bottle-fed breastmilk and I think what is potentially problematic, and I’m not taking a stance, is that that should not be the only vision of how dads bond with their babies because it absolutely does get into women’s heads that this is the way for dad to bond with the baby. Our first son never took a bottle and our husband was able to bond with him in numerous ways – baby wearing, being close to him in general, sleeping with him – there is a ton of things to do. But again, the normalization of bottle-feeding as either a way to feed a child equivalent to breast milk, which it’s not, or as the only acceptable way for us to have dads involved, it is potentially damaging.
I see how many men in North America make the statement of that is how they bonded with their child and I’m appalled that this is seen as the only way in which they can bond with their child.
Also, a lot of that rhetoric comes from the “mom needs a break” philosophy and again, that’s very, very Western, very geared towards productivity, independence, an obedient child. Those are all things that can only happen if mom is well rested and mom gets a break. It’s very wrapped up in a lot of that, and it’s obviously incredibly complicated.
Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s doing anyone a favour – mom, dad, or child – because the best type of bonding doesn’t come from that kind of relationship.
No, and it only reinforces this concept that mom can’t do it unless someone is giving her that kind of break.
Though I think there is a case to be made for working mothers who return to work at six weeks and come home to a newborn – they need a mental health break. But to me, she should have a longer time at home with baby before having to go back to work.
Yes, shift the expectations of culture as well to not require women to return, even psychologically, to the way they were before. I couldn’t read a newspaper for weeks and weeks, my brain would not work. And instead of wondering why and saying, “Oh I’m holding this baby too much”, I simply said, “I guess people will tell me if something big happens in the world” because I couldn’t get my head around it right now.
So I have to ask one that I know is a little tougher because it’s a controversial bit and that’s circumcision because you did circumcise both your boys. My question is based on something you said in another interview that made me think that though you did it, there may have been feelings that it was not a perfect, happy scenario. [Note: The quote was, “my decision to appreciate the traditions of Judaism that say that when you think you are right, you are wrong” in response to a circumcision question.]
I’ve generally resisted speaking about circumcision, largely because the holistic community has made it virtually impossible to speak about in this way, meaning there has not been any place for dialogue when speaking about it only leads to me being called a mutilator.
I think that’s a problem because I’m writing about it now and I feel, well, I’ll be honest that I’m not Jewish and I wouldn’t do it if I had a boy, I have no reason to…
And I don’t support circumcision for non-religious reasons. I also don’t equate female genital mutilation with bris and many people simply do and to me that’s the end of a conversation. What I try and say, and this is the statement of the Holistic Moms Network – I am their spokesperson – they state that they make no stance on religious circumcision. There are communities of observant, attachment parenting, Jewish women who are open to discussing the complexity of the ancient covenant, but in general, it’s only led to statements about me worshipping a false god, and things like that, that I just can’t open up to. And I think that once you start name-calling, you lose the ability to hear from the thousands of women who do want to shed light on this in a positive way. It’s been very difficult, and that’s the easy answer.
I have to admit I’m very sad to hear that because you’re obviously a very intelligent person and so if a discussion could get going with the intent of highlighting certain issues around it, it could go further with you taking part, but I know it’s impossible when the other side just shuts you down.
Well, yeah. And if there’s one thing I hope will occur on a mountain somewhere in the desert it’s the Revelation that we can shift this covenant, but I don’t think that’s going to happen either!
Shifting gears here… if you could initiate one worldwide policy with respect to parenting, what would it be and why?
Oh gosh! I think there have already been tremendous answers in the understanding of pregnancy and breastfeeding that we’re trying to institute worldwide. I think teaching women about their bodies and the normal physiology of pregnancy and labour and breastfeeding in pregnancy would be an incredible gift, even if it’s in the form of a pamphlet. We’ve seen changes in breastfeeding with that kind of information being given out, but I think it needs to expand to include labour and childbearing.
Do you think it needs to happen during that time? I’ve had people on my site suggest that we need to give this information earlier, like in high school to get people more normalized to it.
I definitely think it would be good, but it adds a little bit of complexity. But yes, I think even more so than teaching about safe sex, and which condom to use, it would be a tremendous benefit to teach about the normalness of human physiology in pregnancy, labour, and birth.
One last question before you go. Which character on The Big Bang Theory do you think would be the best Attachment Parent? Because I don’t think it would be Amy…
I think it might be Amy because of her research on primate physiology and I think we know that Leonard’s character has severe attachment problems as his mother has noted – she barely held him and didn’t want to parent him.
But not Bernadette? I always thought it would be Bernadette.
Oh that’s funny. She does look like a real mother goddess!
I’ll have to tell her tonight when I see her.
Okay – thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Mayim Hoya Bialik is best known for her role in the 1990s NBC sitcom “Blossom.” Bialik was born to first generation Jewish American parents who were documentary filmmakers and teachers. She drew international attention when she played the young Bette Midler in “Beaches” in 1989 and has had guest roles on some of television’s most beloved shows of the 1980s and 1990s. She appeared in Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water” in 1994, and has more recently appeared HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Bialik stars regularly as Sheldon Cooper’s friend who is a girl, Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.”
Bialik earned a BS in Neuroscience and Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and a PhD in Neuroscience in 2007 from UCLA. Her thesis in psychoneuroendrocrinology examined the hormones of attachment and their role in obsessive and compulsive behaviors in a genetic syndrome featuring hypothalamic dysfunction. Dr. Bialik designs and teaches a Neuroscience curriculum to junior high and high school homeschoolers in Southern California.
Bialik is married to her college sweetheart and has two sons: Miles Roosevelt, born naturally in 2005 and Frederick Heschel, born at home (unassisted until the final push) in 2008. She is the celebrity spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network and she speaks nationally and internationally on topics including green and holistic parenting, religion and observance, feminism, and the industry that has employed her since she was a child. She writes regularly for Kveller.com and her writing has been featured in a variety of print and online publications.
Dr. Bialik has completed coursework and training to be Certified Lactation Educator/Consultant (CLEC), and eventually plans to be an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC).
Touchstone Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, will release Bialik’s first book, Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way, with an introduction by Dr. Jay Gordon, in March 2012.
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